Cookin' at the Cookery
The Music & Times of Alberta Hunter by Elyse Sommer
Alberta Hunter departed the stage twice. In 1956 she abandoned a career as world renowned blues-jazz singer for a twenty-year stint as a nurse. Her death in 1984 brought a more final exit, but not before a phenomenal and inspiring show business comeback launched at The Cookery in Greenwich Village at the ripe young age of eighty-two. Though Hunter herself is no longer with us, her legend and music lives on through CDs of her music, a taped video, and now, through Marion J. Caffey's latest addition to the bio-musical genre. Thanks to Tony Award-winning Ann Duquesnay lending her powerful pipes to the title role, and the amazingly diverse Debra Walton to portray young Alberta as well as a whole cast of characters, this small show sizzles on all burners.
In any staged life story of legendary musical performers, the biographical structure always entails the risk of taking away from what's really important --the music-- or else skimming the personal elements at the expense of a fully rounded portrait. Mr. Caffey, who is director as well as playwright, has not stinted on the music, giving us a dozen and a half musical numbers, many written by Hunter and with reprises for "My Castle's Rockin", "When the Saints Go Marching In" and "I'm Having a Good Time." The magnificent Duquesnay belts out the show stopper from The Devil's Music, "St. Louis Blues", as well as Hunter's, "Downhearted Blues ", which became a big hit when Bessie Smith recorded it in the early twenties. Which brings me to the story telling. Cookin', like Hank Williams: Lost Highways has traveled from several other successful regional bookings to Off-Broadway buoyed mostly by the music and the performances. Still, Caffey has made many smart choices. He effectively starts with Hunter bored after being forcefully retired from her nursing job (her employers thought 70 was too old, unaware that she'd lost twelve years when she started the job). An old colleague, Barney Josephson (Walton playing the old, white man without even getting out of her young Alberta dress) comes to the rescue with an invitation to do a gig at the Cookery. This sets the stage for moving back and forth from Alberta's singing at the Cookery, to flashbacks to her childhood in Memphis, and her journey to fame.
The play is well served by the inclusion a part for a second actress to play the Narrator and younger Alberta as well as all the other characters who were part of "the music and times of Alberta Hunter." The playwright was lucky to find Debra Walton to take on these multiple personalities. As some performers have bodies like rubber, so it is with Walton's face. Her ability to do men turns into a tour-de-force when she impersonates Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong.
Ms. Duquesnay is no slouch as an actress either, deftly playing Alberta's mother and Aunt Harriet.. As for her Alberta, costume designer Marilyn A. Wall and wig and hair designer Bettie O. Rogers have recreated the flouncy red dress, big dangling earrings and top knot that were part of Hunter's comeback persona to help Duquesnay, who basically looks nothing like Hunter, nail her slight limp and mannerisms.
The versatility of the two actresses can't offset the weaknesses of the script which omits many other musical greats of her time and never develops any of those mentioned. Hunters personal relationships also remain vague. There are several mentions about her mother never coming to hear her sing, but we have no clue as to why not. Walton makes a flash-by appearance as a woman Hunter seems to have had an affair with, and another woman is mentioned but neither serves any real purpose.
While I'm nitpicking, Ms. Duquesnay's voice seems capable of making the walls come tumbling down. So why, in a space that's hardly bigger than a good-sized living room, head mike her instead of giving us a chance to listen to her unfettered by Broadway style amplification?
In the final analysis, there's much more here to applaud than to complain about. Dale Jordan has designed the show with less is best simplicty that enables the actresses to move easily between performance and biographical sequences while it accommodates George Caldwell's excellent four-piece band.
It would be nice if the show now cookin' up a storm at Theater 3 would seed a CD. Until such a time, you can listen to the real Alberta and watch the video made of one of her Cookery concerts.
My Castle's Rocking (1988) video of her life (DVD). . . My Castle's Rocking (1988) video of her life (VHS)
LINKS TO OTHER PLAYS MENTIONED
Hank Williams: Lost Highways
At This Theater
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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